Planetary Politics From Inside The Prison-House Of Language

Politics must be reimagined to include more than mere human affairs, says Tobias Rees.

Aistė Ambrazevičiūtė for Noema Magazine

Noema Deputy Editor Nils Gilman recently interviewed Tobias Rees, who is the director of the Berggruen Institute’s Transformations of the Human program, the Reid Hoffman professor of humanities at the New School for Social Research and a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Nils Gilman: Tell us about the origins and development of your thinking about the concept of “the planetary.”

Tobias Rees: I am interested in the planetary as a concept that, first, indicates that we are leaving “the age of the human” or “the age of Man” and, second, that gives contours to what happens afterward. In a way, I see a shift from the age of the human to “the age of planetary reason.”

About 10 years ago, I became concerned with the concept of “the” human that the human sciences are built on: Where did this concept come from? How did it evolve? The background to this was a vague awareness, from the time I was a philosophy student, that the universal concept of the human is of relatively recent origin. So I began to systematically read up on how the concept emerged.

What I found is that it first emerges in the 1630s, in Europe, with the exemplary references being Descartes or Hobbes. The specific form that was given to “the” human, the architecture of the concept of the human, was that humans are (a) more than mere nature and (b) other than machines (that is, qualitatively different from and irreducible to machines).

This conceptualization of what humans are — more than nature, other than machines — is also a conceptualization of nature or what nature is — namely, the nonhuman (the space of origin where everything comes from) and the nontechnical or non-artificial. And it is a conceptualization of what technology is: Technology is the non-human and the non-natural. It’s kind of the secondary, the derivative, if you will: Technology is that which comes after nature.

Over time, I got fascinated by the idea that today, both differentiations — the differentiation of humans from nature and the differentiation of humans from technology — are uncertain. They don’t quite work anymore.

Take, for example, the microbiome. No one knows where Nils ends and his microbiome begins; Nils’s mind, which supposedly elevates him above nature, is actually the product of neurotransmitters, and most neurotransmitters are produced by bacteria that live in Nils’s gut. Which means that Nils’s state of mind depends on what kind of bacterial populations he has, since different populations produce different kinds of neurotransmitters. And that means that what Nils eats will breed different kinds of bacterial populations, which in turn will produce his state of mind, and so on.

In other words, the thing that supposedly makes us human is actually bacterial in origin and is actually related to agriculture and what we eat. And so the distinction between humans and nature is, at present, because of technical innovation and discovery, unclear. It cannot easily be maintained.

Likewise, the recent advent of deep learning algorithms seems to suggest that the idea that only humans have intelligence (and therefore are more than just machines) doesn’t hold either. Clearly, machines can have some form of intelligence. In fact, one could say that machines are not quite what we thought they are. We thought we knew what machines are: stinky, noisy industrial things in factory halls. But the learning machines built today have little in common with these older machines.

So, the boundaries between humans and nature and humans and machines are at the very least in suspense. And as much is true for the boundaries between nature and technology. Neurotechnologies like cochlear implants show that there can be a seamless continuity between natural and technical processes, between organism and machines. In addition, we increasingly see technology that is biological, by which I mean technologies that are partially made up of biological processes — whether this is synthetic biology, CRISPR or data storage and DNA.

Adding all of these undifferentiation processes together, it seemed to me that the formation of the human that has defined the last 400 years or so is entering a period of major transformations — hence, the Berggruen Institute’s program Transformations of the Human. But the question then emerged: How else can one think about the human? Or: How else can one think of the human, nature and technology together?

It was in the context of asking these questions that I became interested in the concept of the planetary. In short, the planetary, for me, is an opportunity to rethink the human, nature and technology. This opportunity has been made possible by technology. More specifically, the planetary is an opportunity to rethink everything in terms of a single Earth system that was produced by microbes and by biogeochemical processes over the last 3.5 billion years.

Gilman: This modern concept of the human has been around for close to four centuries now. By contrast, the concept of the planetary, or planetarity, is a more recent concept. How would you describe the genealogy of this concept?

Rees: There is a classical genealogy that would go to the literary theorist and feminist scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and then take it from there. But I think that the contemporary theoretical interest in the planetary came from elsewhere. For me, four references are central. 

The first I call “return to the cosmos.” The reference here is to the French philosopher Bruno Latour. Latour has a nostalgia for the medieval nature-cosmos and assumes that before modernity, which he considers a mistake, humans and nature were seamlessly organized. This idea is most pronounced in the coming together of Latour’s “We Have Never Been Modern” and the English scientist James Lovelock’s “Novocene.” This formation revolves around the “noosphere,” which is a concept invented by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Noosphere comes from the Greek nous, a term Plato and Aristotle used to refer to the divine mind that organizes the cosmos. Somehow, the suggestion is that the disasters of climate change can make us rediscover the nous, the metaphysical grounds that underlie what James Lovelock called Gaia. The Gaia hypothesis suggests that Earth is a single, integrated organism held together by some kind of nous: metaphysics as solution to climate change.

The second reference for the contemporary debate about the planetary I call the “shepherd approach.” The reference is to Heidegger and his suggestion that cybernetics could mark the end of philosophy, understood as metaphysics. For Heidegger, metaphysics is what he calls Gestell, or framework. It is a framework insofar as it transforms Being, understood as non-objectness, into beingness, that is, into a discrete, individual thing that can be measured. For Heideggerians, the planetary could mark the end of the reduction of the world to beingness and the breakthrough to Being. It could be the transition of humans from being engineers to humans as true shepherds of Being. I think that one finds echoes of Heidegger in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui, for example, who wonders how to build technologies from the perspective of being.

A third reference for the planetary is the “terraforming.” This is the position of the architect and design theorist Benjamin Bratton and the Strelka Institute, whereby sensors and satellites and so on produce the planetary, or, in Strelka’s language, where planetarity reveals itself to humans through technology. (This is inevitably linked to interplanetarity, because you cannot talk about the planet or planetarity without taking other planets into account.) This is an anti-Heideggerian move and makes the metaphysics, or the conceptual framework, key.

Finally, the fourth reference point is the one that you have been promoting, which I call the “neo-institutionalism,” by which I mean the suggestion that the currently existing institutions of governance and policymaking are specific to human affairs exclusively and that we have entered (because of the pandemic, climate change, etc.) a period where this understanding of governance and policymaking has become insufficient: In the age of climate change and pandemics, we must now also govern the biosphere. To do so, we need new governance and policymaking institutions that match the new conceptual understandings of the planetary.

Gilman: How do you relate to these four approaches?

Rees: I am interested in the difference today makes, and hence in what is new and allows us to break away from the 400-year-old formation of the human, of the age human exceptionalism. 

So when it comes to Latour, I struggle. In my reading, Latour’s notion of nature is modern through and through. It is nature as the “other” of technology. In short, Latour projects a modern concept of nature into antiquity and thereby he ultimately reinscribes what he tries to get away from: modernity. So I must admit that I have a strong aversion to the effort to use climate change, à la Lovelock and Latour, to restore an ancient cosmos.

Heidegger’s approach I find interesting because it offers a poetic experience of the world in terms of Being. But ultimately Heidegger’s suggestion that Being is true and beingness or technology is bad offers few solutions. In fact, he seems to me to perpetuate a version of human exceptionalism where humans are shepherds of Being, whereas everything else is an inert part of the world.

I am curious though about Yuk Hui’s suggestion that one could build technology in terms of Being: technology built as a poem.

I’m also intrigued by Bratton and Strelka’s view of how technology makes a new conception of reality possible — the planetary — but I’m hesitant to make this about “revealing” (more on this in a minute). And finally, I’m fascinated by the idea of neo-institutionalism, because we do indeed need new institutions that govern not just human conduct, but also the biosphere.

Now, at one level, Bratton is right: Without technology, we don’t know of the planetary. But for him, it’s about “revealing,” whereas for me, planetarity itself is constituted by the technologies that we have built. It’s not about “revealing,” in the sense that there was something always there, waiting to show itself; it’s more that with the becoming technical of intelligence, with the becoming artificial of intelligence, beyond the narrow confines of biological organisms, we now have distributed intelligent systems that produce a knowledge object called the planetary or whole-Earth system. This knowledge object did not and could not exist before; it is contingent on technologies.

What I myself am interested in is how the technology that enables this knowledge object, the planetary, allows us to rethink the ontological infrastructure of modernity, with its sharp distinction between human things, natural things and technical things. What new concept of the human becomes possible from the perspective of the planetary –– by which I mean a single Earth system grounded in microbes that doesn’t need to make a distinction between humans, nature and machines? What new concept of nature and of technology could one, would one, have to invent? Or take politics: What does living together and politics mean from the perspective of the planetary?

“With the becoming technical of intelligence, with the becoming artificial of intelligence, beyond the narrow confines of biological organisms, we have distributed intelligent systems that can succeed in bringing the single Earth system into view.”

Gilman: Let me push you on the distinction between the planetary as ontological reality and the epistemic question of how we perceive the planetary. Can we resolve the distinction between Bratton’s view that technology reveals the planetary and your view that technology constitutes the planetary by historicizing the concept of technology itself? For example, when the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky coined the concept of the biosphere in the 1920s, he also coined the concept of the technosphere, which for him is the basis through which he and other scientists are able to increasingly perceive the biosphere — which itself is a conceptual coinage made possible only by the efflorescence of the noosphere.

Clearly, the proliferation of sensor networks on the Earth’s surface and, perhaps even more importantly, remote sensors based in outer space have made it increasingly easy to perceive the planetary, which was always already there, but which is also becoming more enriched through the technosphere. In other words, now through technology, the planetarity is being simultaneously uncovered and intensified.

Rees: Uncovered would mean it was always there, no? Let’s zoom in for a minute on the distinction between the ontological and the conceptual or the epistemic. If I go back to Lovelock and Latour and their love for Teilhard de Chardin, there’s this idea in Latour’s “We Have Never Been Modern” that climate change shows us that something went terribly wrong. What Latour offers is a moral argument. It’s an argument about an eternal truth and a willful, mistaken turn away from this truth: The mistake is modernity, while the truth, a truth preserved by non-moderns, is the divine nature-cosmos. The basis of this moral argument is the suggestion that there is a timeless truth.

For Heidegger, it’s not very different — there is also a timeless truth, which is Being. (Later, Heidegger writes Being and then crosses it out because to write the term Being already makes it into something that is constituted as a thing, and he doesn’t want that.) Being is a timeless truth, and the end of Western metaphysics and philosophy means that we can return to or finally arrive at the beginning, meaning in the state of Being. So again, there is the positing of a timeless truth, underpinned ultimately by a moral argument about what is “the right thing” and what was a “deviation” from the origins or the truth.

On the one hand, Bratton and the Strelka Institute couldn’t be further away from this ontological, ultimately moralizing argument. On the other hand, the term “revealing” is evoking this idea that there is something that Is and that has always been. Call it prior truth, a prior thing that actually exists on its own, that we only now, finally, discover or arrive at.

By contrast, someone trained in conceptual or epistemic thinking would want to intervene and ask, What is the condition of the possibility of the planetary? How is the knowledge object called the planetary produced? What technologies make it possible? Then, what you arrive at is a whole set of technologies — sensors and satellites, distributed intelligence systems with massive amounts of computational power. What you arrive at is the insight that the planetary is a new epistemic formation, a new structure of experience. This is obviously a blow against Latour and Lovelock, on the one hand, and against Heidegger, on the other hand. Latour and Heidegger, from an epistemic perspective, mistake something that is concept-dependent for an ontology. It is a harmony of illusions. 

In short, we can always only be in the tentative space of the epistemic. Call it the primacy of concepts vis-à-vis ontological claims.

“To a degree, microbes and viruses already govern the biosphere. How do we reinvent governance from that perspective?”

Gilman: You spoke earlier about how “the human” emerges as a category in the 1630s. There’s another, older category, which not coincidentally is reformulated at the exact same moment, namely the concept of “the political,” and specifically the concept of the political as associated with the nation-state. If we are to take the planetary seriously as a category that is meant to galvanize action, then does that not mean that we also need to rethink the political, as defined strictly in terms of the human? Put another way: What would a reformulated post-nationalist, post-anthropocentric politics look like?

Rees: One way to respond to this question is to understand how politics has been grounded in a particular concept of the social. While the word society is ancient, going back to Latin, societas, the modern concept of national society, only emerges in the 1830s with Hegel and Adolphe Quetelet and then gets fully articulated in the 1890s, when Émile Durkheim proposes the idea that people are produced by their societies. Tell me which segment of society you’re born in, Durkheim says, and I can tell you who you’re likely to marry, how many kids you will have, where you’re likely to work, what diseases you’re likely to die of, etc. This concept of humans as the products of territorially imagined national societies is a form of social ontology.

Now, this kind of social ontology can be interesting, but in an age of planetarity, it is likely to be insufficient. It is likely to be insufficient because the social is in fact not the ontological ground of the human, but is only a recent concept, a recent description of what humans are and of how reality is organized. Humans have society, this formulation claims, whereas animals and machines don’t. Why? Well, because humans have reason whereas animals and machines don’t. Humans, because they have reason, can negotiate how they want to live together. They invent laws that hold together a group of people, and this grouping that is held together by a set of laws is called a society. By contrast, because animals don’t have reason, they don’t negotiate how to live together but instead just live together according to “the laws of nature.” Machines? Same thing — they simply follow the fixed laws of mechanics, period. This ontology of the world, which is implicit in the term “society,” is precisely what we don’t want for the planetary because it’s a version of human exceptionalism.

In the age of the planetary, the question of living together and of laws and of governance reopens. And the question is: Who lives with whom? In the age of the planetary, who governs? Only humans — or humans and microbes? And what are the laws we should live by and subject ourselves to?

“We can always only be in the tentative space of the epistemic.”

In short, I couldn’t agree more that the emergence of the modern concept of the political coincides with the modern concept of the human. I mentioned before that there are two exemplary places where the modern notion of “the” human gets articulated. One is Descartes, and the other is Hobbes. Hobbes famously says that, on the one hand, there is a state of nature, in which humans are animals among animals, in which man is wolf to man, and, on the other hand, there is a political state, a properly human state, which is very different from the state of nature. Why? Well, because to go into the political state, humans must discover that they’re endowed with reason. Reason here means being able to think about how we should live together — what’s the best form of living together that will allow us to have a secure life. Hobbes is very explicit that animals do not have reason: They live by the laws of nature, and there is no space of deliberation, no freedom, which is something only humans have.

For Hobbes, the outcome of such deliberations are human groupings held together by laws, which he calls societas. For Hobbes, this is the properly political process: producing laws and then governing a societas. It is only a human thing. For Hobbes, a societas is not yet something like a nation-state or national society. In fact, for him, a societas is made up only of those people who actually participated in the negotiation of the laws, which in the 17th century clearly does not include the peasant. The people who hold rights and obligations vis-à-vis a king can be spread out all across Europe. There is no territoriality to Hobbes’s concept of society.

That territorial concept of society only begins, I think, in the second half of the 18th century, with Montesquieu. Before Montesquieu, “society” refers both to the people who make up the societas and to the institutions or the administrative apparatus that exists in order to govern or organize society. But, famously, Montesquieu makes a distinction between the état politique, which essentially means the state, and the état civil, which essentially means the people who are constitutive of society, i.e. all of the people who participated in the negotiation that led to society.

Now, after Montesquieu, Rousseau claimed that society should not be made up of degenerated, dishonest aristocrats, but of the people. For him this was not about justice but about “the people” being closer to or truer to the nobility of some original human nature. This was then taken up by the revolutionaries who proclaim, “We the people should be constitutive of society.” The French Revolution is the birth of a new political principle, society, understood as a national group, a Volk, a territorially defined people. Before the revolution, what is governed is a territory that belongs to the king, with the people who live on this territory being at best accidental. With the revolution, this radically changes: The key object of governance is society, and the goal of all politics is to modernize and reform the national society and make it more just.

In other words, the modern concept of governance is grounded in the concept of society, which in turn is grounded in an ontology that makes a very sharp distinction between humans, nature and machines or technology. The challenge of re-inventing governance in the planetary age — for the age that follows after the formation of “the” human that has ruled for the last 400 years — is that the conception of reality that is implicit in terms like “governance” and “politics” no longer applies.

What we have to ask, philosophically, is: What needs to be governed? Well, partly humans, partly a microbial universe, partly machines — machines that are continuous with biology, humans that are microbial. Now, perhaps you say, “This is silly. How could microbes govern or be governed?” But another way of thinking about this is to observe that microbes are already governing much of the world. In fact, they have produced and successfully governed the biosphere for at least 3.5 billion years.

The real question is: How can there be alignment and seamless continuity? And then, what institutions would one need to achieve a planetary governance? Clearly, machines must be involved, because it’s too big a system with too much data to manage without them. Clearly, the microbes must be involved, because there is no Earth system or humans without them. And clearly, humans must be involved, because we’re the ones who are going to build these institutions.

“The challenge of re-inventing governance in the planetary age is that the conception of reality that is implicit in terms like ‘governance’ and ‘politics’ no longer applies.”

Gilman: This brings us back to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who you earlier mentioned in passing. Spivak’s most famous question is, “Can the Subaltern speak?” Although Spivak doesn’t reference Hobbes in that essay, in a sense, she is asking precisely the question that Hobbes dismissed and Rousseau demanded: How can politically excluded subjects — the peasants, the subalterns — find (or be given) a voice? One way to think about the political question raised by the planetary is that it further radicalizes and broadens Spivak’s question so that we must now ask: Can the microbes speak? Can the machines speak? Can the carbon speak? Maybe speech is too limiting a concept, but the underlying question is: On what basis can we include machines and bacteria and carbon in a planetary governance structure?

Rees: To say that we must cogovern with microbes must be understood the right way. The goal is not to have a couple of petri dishes or test tubes in Congress and then to try to find an AI system that can enable them to say something in human terms. That would be silly. It’s more about recognizing that we live in a reality which is microbially produced, that we ourselves are produced by microbes, descendants of them, and that we must find a way to align with them.

The question of language is fascinating. In linguistics, thanks to Chomsky, there’s still the idea that only humans have “language.” Animals, or non-human systems, by contrast, merely have “communication.” This is, of course, wrong. How could a project where we discuss language in humans, animals and machines aid the question of the planetary? That’s precisely where an ontology for the planetary age can be elaborated: By recognizing that humans have languages, animals have languages, and machines too have languages, we can transform language from a human-exclusive thing into a series with lots of entries. This would enable a shift from a human-exceptionalist ontology to trying to elaborate a new kind of ontology. This would, in turn, be an analogy for what we need to do in terms of governance: to transform politics from something that is only concerned with human affairs to something that is truly planetary.

This interviewed has been edited for clarity.